Roman Empire; Servius Galba (Part 1)

[A.D. 69.] I propose to begin my narrative with the second consulship of Servius Galba, in which Titus Vinius was his colleague. Many historians have dealt with the 820 years of the earlier period beginning with the foundation of Rome, and the story of the Roman Republic has been told with no less ability than truth. After the Battle of Actium, when the interests of peace were served by the centralization of all authority in the hands of one man, there followed a dearth of literary ability, and at the same time truth suffered more and more, partly from ignorance of politics, which were no longer a citizen’s concern, partly from the growing taste for flattery or from hatred of the ruling house. So between malice on one side and servility on the other the interests of posterity were neglected. But historians find that a tone of flattery soon incurs the stigma of servility and earns for them the contempt of their readers, whereas people readily open their ears to the criticisms of envy, since malice makes a show of independence. Of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius, I have known nothing either to my advantage or my hurt. I cannot deny that I originally owed my position to Vespasian, or that I was advanced by Titus and still further promoted by Domitian;[To Vespasian Tacitus probably owed his quaestorship and a seat in the senate; to Titus his tribunate of the people; to Domitian the praetorship and a ‘fellowship’ of one of the great priestly colleges, whose special function was the supervision of foreign cults. This last accounts for Tacitus’ interest in strange religions] but professing, as I do, unbiased honesty, I must speak of no man either with hatred or affection. I have reserved for my old age, if life is spared to me, the reigns of the sainted Nerva and of the Emperor Trajan, which afford a richer and withal a safer theme:[This project, also foreshadowed in “Agricola” iii, was never completed.] for it is the rare fortune of these days that a man may think what he likes and say what he thinks.

The story I now commence is rich in vicissitudes, grim with warfare, torn by civil strife, a tale of horror even during times of peace. It tells of four emperors slain by the sword, three several civil wars, an even larger number of foreign wars and some that were both at once: successes in the East, disaster in the West, disturbance in Illyricum, disaffection in the provinces of Gaul, the conquest of Britain and its immediate loss, the rising of the Sarmatian and Suebic tribes. It tells how Dacia had the privilege of exchanging blows with Rome, and how a pretender claiming to be Nero almost deluded the Parthians into declaring war. Now too Italy was smitten with new disasters, or disasters it had not witnessed for a long period of years. Towns along the rich coast of Campania were submerged or buried. The city was devastated by fires, ancient temples were destroyed, and the Capitol itself was fired by Roman hands. Sacred rites were grossly profaned, and there were scandals in high places.[ Referring in particular to the scandals among the Vestal Virgins and to Domitian’s relations with his niece Julia] The sea swarmed with exiles and the island cliffs[i.e. the Aegean islands, such as Seriphus, Gyarus, Amorgus, where those in disfavor were banished and often murdered] were red with blood. Worse horrors reigned in the city. To be rich or well-born was a crime: men were prosecuted for holding or for refusing office: merit of any kind meant certain ruin. Nor were the Informers more hated for their crimes than for their prizes: some carried off a priest hood or the consulship as their spoil, others won offices and influence in the imperial household: the hatred and fear they inspired worked universal havoc. Slaves were bribed against their masters, freedmen against their patrons, and, if a man had no enemies, he was ruined by his friends.

However, the period was not so utterly barren as to yield no examples of heroism. There were; mothers who followed their sons, wives their husbands into exile: one saw here a kinsman’s courage and there a son-in-law’s devotion: slaves obstinately faithful even on the rack: distinguished men bravely facing the utmost straits and matching in their end the famous deaths of older times. Besides these manifold disasters to mankind there were portents in the sky and on the earth, thunderbolts and other premonitions of good and of evil, some doubtful, some obvious. Indeed never has it been proved by such terrible disasters to Rome or by such clear evidence that Providence is concerned not with our peace of mind but rather with vengeance for our sin.

Before I commence my task, it seems best to go back and consider the state of affairs in the city, the temper of the armies, the condition of the provinces, and to determine the elements of strength and weakness in the different quarters of the Roman world. By this means we may see not only the actual course of events, which is largely governed by chance, but also why and how they occurred.

The death of Nero, after the first outburst of joy with which it was greeted, soon aroused conflicting feelings not only among the senators, the people, and the soldiers in the city, but also among the generals and their troops abroad. It had divulged a secret of state: an emperor could be made elsewhere than at Rome. Still the senate was satisfied. They had immediately taken advantage of their liberty and were naturally emboldened against a prince who was new to the throne and, moreover, absent. The highest class of the knights [Probably those who owned one million sesterces, the property qualification for admission to the senate] seconded the senate’s satisfaction. Respectable citizens, who were attached as clients or freedmen to the great families, and had seen their patrons condemned or exiled, now revived their hopes. The lowest classes, who had grown familiar with the pleasures of the theatre and the circus, the most degraded of the slaves, and Nero’s favorites who had squandered their property and lived on his discreditable bounty, all showed signs of depression and an eager greed for news.

The troops in the city [This includes ‘The Guards’ “cohortes praetoriae” and ‘The City Garrison’ “cohortes urbanae”, and possibly also the “cohortes vigilum”, who were a sort of police corps and fire brigade.] had long been inured to the allegiance of the Caesars, and it was more by the pressure of intrigue than of their own inclination that they came to desert Nero. They soon realized that the donation promised in Galba’s name was not to be paid to them, and that peace would not, like war, offer opportunity for great services and rich rewards. Since they also saw that the new emperor’s favor had been forestalled by the army which proclaimed him, they were ripe for revolution and were further instigated by their rascally Praefect Nymphidius Sabinus, who was plotting to be emperor himself. His design was as a matter of fact detected and quashed, but, though the ringleader was removed, many of the troops still felt conscious of their treason and could be heard commenting on Galba’s senility and avarice. His austerity–a quality once admired and set high in soldiers’ estimation–only annoyed troops whose contempt for the old methods of discipline had been fostered by fourteen years of service under Nero. They had come to love the emperors’ vices as much as they once reverenced their virtues in older days. Moreover Galba had let fall a remark, which augured well for Rome, though it spelt danger to himself. ‘I do not buy my soldiers,’ he said, ‘I select them.’ And indeed, as things then stood, his words sounded incongruous.

Galba was old and ill. Of his two lieutenants Titus Vinius was the vilest of men and Cornelius Laco the laziest. Hated as he was for Vinius’ crimes and despised for Laco’s inefficiency, between them Galba soon came to ruin. His march from Spain was slow and stained with bloodshed. He executed Cingonius Varro, the consul-elect, and Petronius Turpilianus, an ex-consul, the former as an accomplice of Nymphidius, the latter as one of Nero’s generals. They were both denied any opportunity of a hearing or defense–and might as well have been innocent. On his arrival at Rome the butchery of thousands of unarmed soldiers [i.e. the marines, whom Nero had formed into a reserve force (Legio I Adiutrix). They had met Galba at the Mulvian Bridge, probably with a petition for service in the Line] gave an ill omen to his entry, and alarmed even the men who did the slaughter. The city was filled with strange troops. A legion had been brought from Spain, [Legio VII Galbiana, sent later to Pannonia] and the regiment of marines enrolled by Nero still remained. Moreover there were several detachments from Germany, Britain, and Illyricum,[ Illyricum included all the Danube provinces] which had been selected by Nero, dispatched to the Caspian Pass[The Pass of Dariel over the center of the Caucasus. The Albanians lay to the east of its southern end, on the south-west coast of the Caspian] for the projected war against the Albanians, and subsequently recalled to aid in crushing the revolt of Vindex. [Vindex, Pro-praetor in the Lyons division of Gaul, had revolted against Nero early in the year 68 and offered his support to Galba, then governor of the Tarragona division of Spain. He was defeated by Verginius Rufus, commanding the forces in Upper Germany, and committed suicide. Verginius afterwards declared for Galba, though his troops wanted to make him emperor]These were all fine fuel for a revolution, and, although their favor centered on nobody in particular, there they were at the disposal of any one who had enterprise.

It happened by chance that the news of the death of Clodius Macer and of Fonteius Capito arrived in Rome simultaneously. Macer,[ Clodius Macer commanded Legio III Augusta and governed Numidia, which Tiberius at the end of his reign had detached from the pro-consulate of Africa] who was undoubtedly raising a disturbance in Africa, was put to death by the imperial agent Trebonius Garutianus, acting under Galba’s orders: Capito [Governor of Lower Germany. See chap. 58 and iii. 62] had made a similar attempt in Germany and was killed by two officers, Cornelius Aquinus and Fabius Valens, without waiting for instructions. While Capito had a foul reputation for extortion and loose living, some people yet believed that he had withheld his hand from treason. His officers, they supposed, had urged him to declare war, and, when they could not persuade him, had gone on to charge him falsely with their own offence,[18] while Galba from weakness of character, or perhaps because he was afraid to inquire too far, approved what had happened for good or for ill, since it was past alteration. At any rate both executions were unpopular. Now that Galba was disliked, everything he did, whether right or wrong, made him more unpopular. His freedmen were all-powerful: money could do anything: the slaves were thirsting for an upheaval, and with so elderly an emperor were naturally expecting to see one soon. The evils of the new court were those of the old, and while equally oppressive were not so easily excused. Even Galba’s age seemed comic and despicable to a populace that was used to the young Nero and compared the emperors, as such people will, in point of looks and personal attraction.


Such then at Rome was the variety of feeling natural in so vast a population. To turn to the provinces abroad: Spain was under the command of Cluvius Rufus, a man of great eloquence, and more skilled in the arts of peace than of war. [He wrote a history of his own time, which was one of Tacitus’ chief authorities] The Gallic provinces had not forgotten Vindex: moreover, they were bound to Galba by his recent grant of Roman citizenship and his rebate of their tribute for the future. The tribes, however, which lay nearest to the armies stationed in Germany had not received these honors: some even had lost part of their territory and were equally aggrieved at the magnitude of their own injuries and of their neighbors’ benefits. The troops in Germany were proud of their recent victory, indignant at their treatment and perplexed by a nervous consciousness that they had supported the wrong side: a very dangerous state for so strong a force to be in. They had been slow to desert Nero, and Verginius did not immediately declare for Galba. Whether he really did not want the throne is doubtful: without question his soldiers made him the offer. The death of Fonteius Capito aroused the indignation even of those who had no right to complain. However, they still lacked a leader: Galba had sent for Verginius under a pretence of friendship, and, when he was not allowed to return and was even charged with treachery, the soldiers considered his case their own.

The army of Upper Germany felt no respect for their commander, Hordeonius Flaccus. [Verginius’ successor] Weakened by age and an affection of the feet he was without resolution or authority, and could not have controlled the mildest troops. These fiery spirits were only the further inflamed when they felt such a weak hand on the reins. The legions of Lower Germany had been for some time without a commander, [ Since Capito’s death] until Aulus Vitellius appeared. He was the son of the Lucius Vitellius who had been censor and thrice consul, [He died in A.D. 54. In the censorship and in two of his consulships he had been Claudius’ colleague] and Galba thought this sufficient to impress the troops. The army in Britain showed no bad feeling. All through the disturbance of the civil wars no troops kept cleaner hands. This may have been because they were so far away and severed by the sea, or perhaps frequent engagements had taught them to keep their rancour for the enemy. Quiet ruled in Illyricum also, although the legions, which had been summoned by Nero, [For the war with Vindex] while lingering in Italy had made overtures to Verginius. But the armies lay far apart, always a sound assistance to the maintenance of military discipline, since the men could neither share vices nor join forces.

The East was still untroubled. Licinius Mucianus held Syria with four legions. [The fourth legion is III Gallica, afterwards moved into Moesia] He was a man who was always famous, whether in good fortune or in bad. As a youth he was ambitious and cultivated the friendship of the great. Later he found himself in straitened circumstances and a very ambiguous position, and, suspecting Claudius’ displeasure, he withdrew into the wilds of Asia, where he came as near to being an exile as afterwards to being an emperor. He was a strange mixture of good and bad, of luxury and industry, courtesy and arrogance. In leisure he was self-indulgent, but full of vigour on service. His outward behavior was praiseworthy, though ill was spoken of his private life. However, with those who were under him or near him, and with his colleagues he gained great influence by various devices, and seems to have been the sort of man who would more readily make an emperor than be one.

The Jewish war was being conducted by Flavius Vespasianus-appointed by Nero-with three legions. He had no ill-will against Galba, and nothing to hope from his fall. Indeed he had sent his son Titus to carry his compliments and offer allegiance, an incident we must reserve for its proper place. It was only after Vespasian’s rise that Roman society came to believe in the mysterious moving’s of Providence, and supposed that portents and oracles had predestined the throne for him and his family.

Of Egypt and its garrison, ever since the days of the sainted Augustus, the knights of Rome have been uncrowned kings.[ Cp. “Ann.”, ii. 59. ‘Amongst other secret principles of his imperial policy, Augustus had put Egypt in a position by itself, forbidding all senators and knights of the highest class to enter that country without his permission. For Egypt holds the key, as it were, both of sea and land’ (tr. Ramsay). Cp. iii. 8] The province being difficult to reach, rich in crops, torn and tossed by fanaticism and sedition, ignorant of law, unused to bureaucratic government, it seemed wiser to keep it in the control of the Household. [i.e. to govern it by the emperor’s private agents. The province was regarded as part of the emperor’s estate (patrimonium). This post was the highest in the imperial service.] The governor at that date was Tiberius Alexander, himself a native of Egypt. [A member of a Jewish family settled in Alexandria and thus entitled to Roman citizenship. He was a nephew of the historian Philo; had been Procurator of Judaea and chief of Corbulo’s staff in Armenia] Africa and its legions, now that Clodius Macer had been executed, were ready to put up with any ruler after their experience of a petty master. The two Mauretanias, Raetia, Noricum, Thrace, and the other provinces governed by procurators had their sympathies determined by the neighbourhood of troops, and always caught their likes or dislikes from the strongest army. The un-garrisoned provinces, and chief amongst these Italy, were destined to be the prize of war, and lay at the mercy of any master.

Such was the state of the Roman world when Servius Galba, consul for the second time, and Titus Vinius his colleague, inaugurated the year which was to be their last, and almost the last for the commonwealth of Rome.

REFERENCE: The Histories (Book 1) of Publius Cornelius Tacitus; Translated by W. HAMILTON FYFE (1912); CONTRIBUTOR: Callum McCormick

Roman Empire: Servius Galba (Part 2)


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